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An Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion Puzzle

An Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion Puzzle

Credit: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

In the past couple of months, two interesting polls have been published on Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. The first (published in late May), which was commissioned by the Israel Peace Initiative and conducted by the Israeli company New Wave Research, found that 55 percent of Israelis support the recently amended Arab Peace Initiative. The original initiative had called for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, while the amended initiative allows for min0r land swaps in order to account for the numerous Israeli settlements in the West Bank. When pollsters asked interviewees whether or not they would support the initiative if Prime Minister Netanyahu backed it, Israeli support climbed to an eyebrow-raising 69 percent.

A joint poll conducted in June by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah provided additional telling information. The poll found that 56 percent of Palestinians also support the amended Arab Peace Initiative, a number virtually unchanged from from previous polls conducted by the two institutions on the Arab Peace Initiative in the years before it was amended. The June survey similarly found that 53 percent of Palestinians and 62 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yet a glaring contradiction exists between the joint poll and the Israel Peace Initiative-commissioned survey. The joint poll found that when specifically asked about the amended Arab Peace Initiative, Israeli support dropped to only 24 percent. This number is even less than the percentage of Israelis the joint poll found in support of the Arab Peace Initiative in the years before it was amended (around 33 percent). Furthermore, the results of the latest joint poll contradict many other polls conducted by the same institutions. In yearly surveys conducted by the Hebrew University and PCPSR released every December since 2003, a nearly identical peace plan presented to the interviewees as an amalgamation of the Clinton Parameters and the Geneva Initiative (the former a peace plan put forward by President Clinton during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in late 2000, the latter an unofficial peace plan drafted in 2003 by some senior Israeli and Palestinian officials), has on average received over 50 percent support from the Israeli public. Conversely, this same peace plan — nearly identical to the amended Arab Peace Initiative — has on average received less than 50 percent support among the Palestinian public (about 45 percent).

Has Israeli public opinion drastically changed just over the past few months? Do Israelis no longer support the Clinton Parameters/Geneva Initiative peace plans? Do a solid majority of Palestinians now consistently support those same plans, since they support the virtually identical amended Arab Peace Initiative?

It is obviously very difficult to answer this question, but semantics may play a large role in explaining the poll results. Among Palestinians, the mention of the Arab Peace Initiative likely elicits more trust than the Clinton Parameters because America is seen by most Palestinians as favoring Israel and its interests at the expense of the Palestinians and their cause. Furthermore, the Geneva Initiative has in the past garnered popular criticism from Palestinians for its concessions on refugees (although the solution to the refugee problem presented to interviewees in the joint poll is actually almost as flexible as that of the Arab Peace Initiative). The Arab Peace Initiative, although not much different from the Clinton and Geneva peace plans, may therefore attract more support among Palestinians. The Israelis, for their part, see the situation precisely in the opposite way. The Geneva Initiative did not garner as much popular criticism among Israelis (although it certainly was criticized by the Israeli government and many Israeli officials in 2003), and Israelis especially view former President Clinton in a positive light — as a friend who understood Israeli concerns and honestly tried to broker a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Conversely, most Israelis view the Arab countries with skepticism.

Observers will have to wait for more public opinion polls to be released in order to fully flesh out the discrepancies between the two polls. But there is nothing that solidly suggests Israelis have changed their opinions so drastically in just a matter of months. The next joint poll, to be released in December, will likely show that this is the case.



Justin Scott Finkelstein

Justin Finkelstein recently received a Master's degree from New York University in Near Eastern Studies. He has spent most of his academic career and thereafter studying the Arab-Israeli conflict. His Master's thesis explored and analyzed the competing histories of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem (1947-1949) and the potential for its solution.

He is currently a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. He has traveled to both Israel and Morocco and has attended the Middlebury Arabic School program.